Faces of Manufacturing: Norma Byron from Ashlawn Energy

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FOM Norma Ashlawn

Meet Ashlawn Energy LLC

Ashlawn Energy LLC is the Binghamton-based developer of the VanCharg™ system, a rechargeable battery providing multifamily residences and commercial office buildings with safe, cost-effective energy.

Norma Byron, President of Ashlawn, said the company’s vanadium redox flow battery is a “cousin” to the hydrogen fuel cell but uses a liquid electrolyte. It charges during off-peak hours, taking power from any electrical source, and stores that energy for use during peak hours. The battery lasts up to 30 years and, because it is water-based, will never catch fire.

Ashlawn currently is focusing on the New York City market because of a new greenhouse gas emissions law, utility programs, FDNY policy, and the sheer number of buildings there. The company plans to use its 2023 Commercialization Competition prize to purchase equipment to ramp up production.

“I am not a techie.”

Ashlawn got its start in Ohio, in 2008. Byron had been working in the defense industry, where she studied fuel cells as a power source for munitions. She became interest in green energy and in keeping electricity flowing when the sun wasn’t shining, or the wind wasn’t blowing.

“I am not a techie,” Byron said. “I have no technical background whatsoever. What I do bring is business knowledge.”

The idea, therefore, was to leverage existing technology. A friend suggested the vanadium redox flow battery because of its long-life and safety record.

“I looked into it and decided it was something I should be doing,” she said. “I contacted the original inventor, in Australia, and got a licensing agreement.”

That agreement has since expired but was enough to get Ashlawn a Department of Energy grant to fund its initial research. The company was working with a utility, but Byron decided that was not the best way to go.

“When I started looking at what kind of market to develop, we determined buildings were the best place to look,” she said. “It took a long time to figure all this out. In the meantime, we filed five patents and developed five prototypes.”

Welcome to New York

In 2019, Ashlawn took up residence in the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator at Binghamton University.

“We initially were doing testing there, but we have moved into a bigger space, and we’re augmenting that to do battery assembly,” Byron said. “So, we’re making fast progress, but that is after many years of not-so-fast progress.”

The $150,000 Commercialization Competition award will fund the purchase of a stack assembly press.

“When we’ve done battery assembly before it was a few people doing it manually,” Byron said. “By automating the process we can reduce assembly from a week to a day and remove any guesswork.”

Ashlawn relies on interns, consultants, and contract workers, but once the new equipment is in place “we will definitely be hiring,” Byron said. “Probably two assembly workers to start, then an engineer and we’ll go from there. I can see adding QC (quality control) people.”

Moving to automated assembly required new CAD drawings, so Ashlawn turned to AMT, the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership center for the Southern Tier, for funding to work with the Rochester Institute of Technology. Byron also is working with AMT on a project involving endplate designs.

“They have really helped us,” Byron said. “We’ve also worked with Rev Ithaca Startup Works and did market research through the NSF’s I-Corps program.”

Focus on the Future

I-Corps was key in helping Byron define her market. At first, she was excited about everything VanCharg™ could do.

“What I learned is that it doesn’t matter what it can do, if you focus on everything, you’re not going to focus on anything,” she said. “I think that advice has been critical to our success to this point. We chose a path and we stuck with it.”

That path led directly to New York City. But it will not end there.

“A lot of cities look to New York to be a leader and then they are happy to follow along,” Byron said. “So, in five years we want to be in at least two more cities.”


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